A garden redesigned to suit all the family

Joanne and Graham Winn have transformed an overgrown plot into a beautiful family garden

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‘The first time we saw this garden, it was little more than an old orchard knee-high in brambles and stinging nettles,’ recalls Joanne, ‘but the lilacs were flowering and, even though the house was so neglected that we nicknamed it “Bleak House”, we wanted to make it our home.’

Today, only sweet-smelling lilacs remain to remind them of that first glimpse of the quarter-acre, north-west-facing plot with its fantastic views towards The Shard in central London. In the intervening two decades, the unpromising cottage has been beautifully restored, the couple have had two children, Sebastian and Scarlet, and the garden has been transformed.

Fact file

  • The owners: Joanne Winn, a garden designer, and her husband Graham, director of an audio/visual company, live here with their two children, Sebastian, 15, and Scarlet, 13
  • The property: A detached 1920s four-bedroom cottage
  • The location: Wallington, Surrey
  • What they spent: The couple’s garden project cost around £23,000

Clearing the space

Joanne had such fond memories of her grandparents’ garden, that as soon as she moved to her current home, she started gardening in earnest. ‘I was desperate to grow flowers, but initially I had to make do with a few small beds among the many trees,’ she explains. ‘The garden took a long time to clear because there were so many decaying trees. The space has since been designed around the trees, but only after we’d stripped away all the low-growing branches and gradually raised the canopies so that you can see through to the back of the garden.’ Today, a few of the original fruit trees remain, heralding each spring with a haze of blossom.

Before having a family, Joanna had worked in sales, but in her heart she’d always wanted to be involved in design, as her father, an architect, had encouraged her love of drawing. It was working on her own garden, however, that inspired Joanne to study for a diploma in garden design at Merrist Wood College, which spawned plenty of ideas for redesigning the space.

Attracting wildlife

While Graham and Joanne cut back within the garden, the outer south-west boundary was filling out with a mixed native hedge that established well from bare root plants including hawthorn, blackthorn, quince, dog rose and hazel. ‘It gives some protection from the winds that regularly blast our hill-top plot,’ explains Joanne. The hedge is also very popular with birds, especially house sparrows, so it’s no surprise to learn that the garden has won the wildlife category in the Sutton in Bloom gardening competition. ‘Graham has a great love of wildlife, especially birds that nest in our many trees,’ she adds. There are also many hidden corners which, combined with a minimal use of chemicals, have created a haven for a huge variety of birds and insects, particularly bees and butterflies attracted by the diverse range of plants and flowers.

Design elements

With the strong emphasis on wildlife, Joanne realised that any redesign needed to be quite naturalistic in style. As a result, her design incorporates a mix of design elements, such as the timber decking and the planting, which is inspired by designers such as Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith. ‘I love to blend ornamental grasses with herbaceous plants, but it evolved slowly because I had a small budget and grew most of the plants myself from seed or from cuttings I’d been given.’

Joanne’s green-fingered talent is obvious from the initial view that greets visitors, which is veiled by a border overflowing with verbena, salvias, knautia, alliums, achilleas, sedums and hardy geraniums. A curving, gravel path winds away from the terrace outside the kitchen, forking to disappear beneath the trees, or loop around a bed of lavender. The pathway eventually finishes near the pool deck, passing a gate that leads to a paddock where the family’s chickens scrabble around a large trampoline tucked away behind the trees.

Family function

It is not immediately clear that this is a family garden – there is no scuffed grass, swings or climbing frames, and the plants seem untouched by fly-away footballs – but closer inspection reveals a fairy-tale Wendy house on stilts hidden in a shady corner beneath the trees. This was built by Graham, who also built an electric children’s car, and Joanne had to design a wide garden path especially for it, made from compacted binding gravel on a scalping base contained within strips of steel edging. It is a solution that was well worth the time and cost because the path has stood the test of time – including young, pounding feet – so well.

The children also love the pond, which was only built once they could swim. In spring, it is filled with frogs, and by summer is home to dragonflies and damselflies. Unfortunately, the butyl pond liner causes the soil surrounding the pond to dry out easily. ‘It means that I cannot grow moisture-loving marginal plants for a smooth transition from pool to garden,’ says Joanne. As a result, the pond is edged in yellow loosestrife, ferns, alchemilla, primulas and grasses.

Another problem area is the shaded patch along the north-eastern boundary. ‘It eats up loads of leaf mould and our homemade compost, which is enriched by chicken manure,’ Joanne explains. This area is home to shade-lovers such as euphorbias, hellebores, ferns, aconites, Japanese anemones, purple-flowered liriope muscari, hardy geraniums and hydrangeas – a particular favourite.

Growing the garden

As the years have passed, Joanne has added more and more plants, based on a deep knowledge of her garden, its aspect, conditions and, above all, the soil. ‘This garden has a real mixture, varying from greatly improved deep loam to chalky or flinty soil, and there’s even the odd pocket of clay,’ she says.

Rich soil is essential in the kitchen garden – a sunny, productive patch with raised beds of vegetables, soft fruit and a small greenhouse. This is Joanne’s favourite spot, and the place that she’s most likely to be found, even in the depths of winter.

‘It’s my haven, I suppose,’ she says. ‘I love its calm serenity and feeling of enclosure. It’s a great place to escape to for peace and quiet, somewhere to feel in touch with nature, and to indulge my passion for nurturing plants.’

The costs

Compacted gravel pathways£1,500
Wendy house£850
Sleepers and shingle for potager£800